Saturday, August 24, 2013

City council, August 26th - Boise and the Carousel, Parking of Two Kinds

Though the Boise project and Carousel has got all the headlines, there's a surprising amount of interesting things on Council's agenda for Monday.

Aerial Rendering in recent online advertising
The Boise project, of course leads, and much of the talk seems, at least from this angle, to be disproportionately focused on one issue - access and the proposed drive through the existing parking lot.

Unfortunately, because the permitting process for the apartments was administrative, and didn't require a hearing at the Planning Commission, the proposed driveway and the concurrent tax abatement application have become proxies for judgment and opinion on the whole design of this portion of the development.  And so we get a bunch of spillover from the more narrow questions.  This isn't surprising:  The community deserves a chance to weigh in on the whole apartment configuration and design, and a process that doesn't give the community this opportunity is flawed.  As important as this project is, public design charettes might well have been in order.

The Drive and Access

If we spent as much energy on School safety as we seem to be spending on talking about Carousel safety, boy-oh-boy, things would be better!

According to a traffic analysis (which for the moment we will take at face value), the proposed apartments would add in round numbers about 1000 trips per day, and an estimated 60 trips during peak pm traffic.  Overall, that's less than one car per minute.  If you haven't stood and counted traffic, maybe that seems like a lot.  But it's not!

Concern about Orchard Heights and Doaks Ferry
4 Schools near Orchard Heights
We site schools all the time on or near roads much busier!  Think about Orchard Heights and Doaks Ferry, and all the schools there.

At Straub Middle School, Orchard Heights has about 5,000 daily trips, at West Salem High and Chapman Elementary, just south of Orchard Heights, Doaks Ferry has about 4,500 trips. (City Traffic Counts can be seen here.)

The roads are wider, the speeds are faster, and both the kids and cars far more numerous.

Alarm about an increase in traffic at the Carousel is in many ways more about development style than traffic substance.  And in fact, the actual letter from the Carousel says, "the Salem Riverfront Carousel Board of Directors opposes the proposed development of multi-family dwellings west of the railroad tracks and south of the Carousel."  Their opposition isn't just about the driveway.

It is about the encroachment on park land, what that looks like, and how it impacts the park and Carousel, and not so much about actual road capacity and parking lot safety.

Indeed, style and site plan are the reasons to be concerned. The apartment's design is rather middling, not in harmony with the park, and not in a configuration of uses optimal (or even just "pretty good") for downtown or a vibrant mixed-use development.

Proposed Design: View from carousel lot near playground equipment,
looking mostly east/southeast

For comparison, housing and retail on SE Division in Portland
 THA Architecture
That's a real reason to be concerned about the development - but judged by the way we site and handle schools, narrow concerns about an increase in traffic at the Carousel may be something of a red herring.

Also interesting, and perhaps more important, are some other points.  Allowing this access will require:
  • Amending the Riverfront Park Master Plan, which currently does not permit a driveway for a private development
  • Widening park pathways for Fire and Emergency response access from Union Street
  • A Federal Land & Water Conservation Fund Act 6(f) conversion, the process for trading new land and incorporating it into the park for the loss of the privatized portion lost to the Boise development.
Basically, nothing would normally permit this sort of thing, and the usual staff recommendation would be to deny it.  Since the Boise Redevelopment is in fact special, staff have made a defensible punt, and made no recommendation, asking instead for Council to make policy on this:
A request for the permanent private use of a City of Salem park property is very rare. While such a request would typically be presented to Council with a staff recommendation for denial, this proposal is quite unique given its location and history. Given that this proposal presents both opportunities for the community and possible negative impacts to the City's premier events park, staff believes that the decision to grant the access easements is ultimately a policy decision for Council. Thus, staff's recommendation to Council is to "consider" the request for access, rather than the standard recommendation to "accept" or "deny."
Others have criticized the punt, saying staff and Council should hold out for a better design and therefore should recommend a denial of this request.  But if staff really believe this is the best the developer can do, then the punt is understandable. 

As for the tax abatement, it may or may not be good policy, but the proposed apartments appear to meet the City's Multi-Unit Housing Tax Incentive Program, as it is written. Since the apartments are already in an urban renewal zone, this amounts to kind of double subtraction - there won't be a "tax increment" to go into the urban renewal district, either.  But there may be no good reason to deny the application.

The report on the abatement application contains some useful information, however.

The rents they are seeking still seem on the high side
The proposed rents might give one pause.  Is there really that big of a market for 2- and 3-bedroom apartments that rent for $1,100 to $1,570?   Though they are on the park, these are also right by a railroad line, remember. (See note below on rents in the North Downtown Housing Investment Strategy.)

In the staff report there's also a budget, placing the current estimated project cost at $17,630,254.

For more on the development and its design:
In the end, you might have the sinking feeling that this is the best Salem can do at the moment. But you also might think it would be worth continuing to work on the project design since what will be done essentially cannot be undone, and this is a special site we should take extra care to get right.

Other Stuff - Including Good News for Bikes

There's a proposal to incorporate additional, permanent bike parking into the Riverfront-Downtown Urban Renewal Plan!
For several years downtown businesses and community members have expressed interest in more bicycle facilities downtown, including expanded bicycle parking. Several temporary bike parking facilities, including as part of First Wednesday's have demonstrated continued demand for new facilities. Expanded bike parking strengthens several of the Mobility Study recommendations, including development of Family Friendly Bikeways, and is expected to encourage more individuals to ride downtown for shopping, dining, and events year- round....

Many cities, including Portland, Corvallis, and Eugene, offer covered bike parking in their central business districts. Constructing amenities that encourage more bicycling in downtown, including covered bike parking, has been voiced by the community for several years, including as a priority in the Vision 2020 Action Plan.
Yes, Please!

There's a report on the North Downtown Housing Investment Strategy. Interestingly, it has a chart on rents:
2 and 3 BR average in the $800s
It clearly shows the premium the Riverfront Park apartments hope the market supports.

In a survey, the ability to walk and bike also outranked driving by a significant margin!  Are the proposed Boise apartments actually too auto-centric?

Walking and Biking outrank Driving!
(There's also some ugliness.  One comment submitted in a survey: "NO LOW INCOME, WIC, SECTION 8 ..... ETC. HOUSING IN DOWNTOWN SALEM. Put these special needs people on N. Salem. Thank you."  Downtown cannot be a playground for the privileged only.)

Somewhat buried is a proposal to apply for an EPA Brownfields Assessment grant.  It would be interesting to know more about the sites potentially for study.  The staff report mentions historic buildings needing asbestos or lead paint abatement; gas stations, dry cleaners, and other manufacturing sites; former agricultural or industrial sites, including state institutions; and mystery sites about which little is known.  One wonders if the North State Hospital parcel is one of the biggies in mind here.

In all the hullabaloo about the Carousel and Boise, the continuation of the Parking Task Force recommendations has been less visible.  There is actually very little public comment in the information packet.  As others have pointed out, conversation risks being one-sided right now, as opponents have largely withdrawn from the public process and put their energy into the petition drive. (It is not easy, however, to have full faith in the public process; so often by the time a matter reaches Council, the decision is already made and it's too late for more than public comment theater.)

And finally there's a brief report on the Downtown Economic Improvement District, taken over by the City when it terminated the agreement with the Salem Downtown Partnership.


Curtis Fisher said...

Agreed on Boise. Just too many red flags.

Anonymous said...

Don't be so quick to say the development meets the tax abatement requirements as written! A commenter to the SJ story points out that the ORS, in the words of the staff report,

"provides a property tax exemption for up to ten years for new or converted, transit
supportive, non-transient multiple family housing units constructed within the defined
core area (Attachment A) that provide one or more public benefits as defined in the

It's a real question whether this auto-oriented development is, apart from its location in downtown, actually "transit supportive."

At the least, it's more ambiguous than you suggest.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Very interesting about the transit! You are right that it is more complicated, and would have been worth paying more attention to the staff report and reading it more closely.

From the Staff report, the project ostensibly meets 10 of the 19 requirements. First, here are the ones it does not meet -

Public Benefits Not Addressed:
1. Day care facilities;
2. Facilities supportive of the arts;
3. Facilities for the handicapped (the Project will comply with ADA requirements, including the provision of handicapped accessible units and spaces);
4. Service or commercial uses which are permitted and needed at the project site but not available for economic reasons;
5. Special architectural features;
6. Development on sites with existing single-story commercial
7. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
Certification by the Green Building Council of the project;
8. Provision of parking spaces within the structure; or
9. Provision of amenities and/or programs supportive of the use of mass transit.

Most significant is #9: The development lacks amenities or programs supportive of the use of transit.

Two of the benefits it addresses seem a little dubious. Not sure about the project itself (excluding the park of course) having meaningful open space, and the "pedestrian oriented" stuff is all about path along Pringle Creek, and not fundamentally about storefronts, internal sidewalks, or external connectivity -
Public Benefits Addressed:
3. Open spaces
a. Project will have 0.87 acre of open space
7. Provision of pedestrian-oriented design features
a. Applicant proposes direct access to Riverfront Park from
the Project and potential connection along Pringle Creek
to Commercial St.
b. Extra costs associated with infill or redevelopment
projects, such as land assembly, environmental cleanup,
demolition, and infrastructure replacement or expansion
c. Project is located at the former Boise Cascade industrial
site, and development of the site has and will require
demolition of existing structures, construction on nonnative soil and potential environmental issues

So yeah, as you and the SJ commenter say, it fails to be "transit supportive" and may not in fact merit the tax abatement.